Coveney says ‘no clear advice’ given to President about NI religious service invitation

John Bruton says Michael D Higgins should reverse decision to decline invite to event queen attending

President Michael D Higgins at the Quirinal Palace in Rome this week. Photograph: Maxwells/PA Wire

President Michael D Higgins at the Quirinal Palace in Rome this week. Photograph: Maxwells/PA Wire

 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said his Department “didn’t give any clear advice” to President Michael D Higgins about an invitation to a church service in Armagh marking the centenary of partition and creation of Northern Ireland.

However, Mr Coveney said “there was consultation between the DFA and the Áras on this issue”.

Mr Coveney was questioned about Mr Higgins’s decision to decline an invitation to the religious service in Northern Ireland next month that will be attended by the queen.

The controversy has threatened to overshadow Mr Higgins’s audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican later on Friday.

Speaking to reporters on Belfast on Friday morning, Mr Coveney said his “department would be involved in consultations with Áras an Uachtaráin and the President’s team regularly on a lot of things [AND]we didn’t give any clear advice to the President in relation to this particular event”.

It is understood that the event was discussed and outlined in the course of normal dialogues between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Áras, with no official or specific advice on attendance sought from or given by Iveagh House

Mr Coveney said it was “quite clear” from the statements made by Mr Higgins that “he made his own decision - he is the head of State, he’s entitled to make his own decisions on his own diary and the events that he attends, and I think that he’s answered for himself on that”.

Mr Coveney said the Government had not received an invitation to the event, “but if we do receive an invitation of course we’ll give it serious consideration”.

Asked if he thought it was a “mistake” that Mr Higgins was not attending the event, Mr Coveney said he was “not going to second guess the decisions of the President of Ireland, he makes his own decisions and he makes his own judgement calls and I respect that” .

Mr Coveney is in Belfast to meet the North’s political parties and later on Friday will take part in a panel discussion organised by the Presbyterian Church to mark the centenary of partition and the formation of Northern Ireland at Union Theological College.

Mr Higgins has stood over his decision to decline the invitation on the grounds that the event is political in nature and commemorates the “centenary of the partition of Ireland”.

The President broke his silence on the controversy on Thursday night and also strongly denied any suggestion of a snub on Queen Elizabeth.

Earlier, former Fine Gael taoiseach John Bruton said Mr Higgins should attend the event and appeared not to have sought the advice of the Government as “he is obliged to do under the Constitution”.

‘Some concern’

Mr Bruton told BBC Radio Ulster on Friday morning: “If he had fulfilled his obligation under the Constitution, which is to take the advice of the Irish Government on this matter, they would have advised him that he ought to go.

“He seems to have some concern that it is in some way taking note of the existence of Northern Ireland as a separate entity.

“But the reality is that the Irish people in the Good Friday Agreement, which they voted on and approved in a referendum, accept the present wishes of the people of Northern Ireland to maintain the union, until that is changed.

“So, in accepting an invitation to an event which is simply marking the existence of Northern Ireland for 100 years, the President would have been acting in accordance with the wishes of the Irish people.”

Mr Bruton said “it appears he didn’t seek the advice of the Government which he is obliged to do under the Constitution”.

However, historian Diarmaid Ferriter said Mr Bruton was misreading the relevant Constitutional article, when he appeared on the Today with Claire Byrne programme. He also said Mr Higgins’s move was “not a snub” to the queen.

Mr Bruton claimed there was an unfortunate tradition in and around Northern Ireland of “going out of your way to take offence”, adding “some of the explanations the President gave for his declining the invitation involve going out of the way to take offence, in regards to the way he was addressed”.

He said he hoped the Government would send a representative to the event.

The attendance of the Taoiseach or Tánaiste would “remedy some of the harm that has been done”, but the “person who should be there, if the queen is there, is Uachtaráin na hÉireann Michael D Higgins”.

‘Retrograde’

Meanwhile, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson accused Mr Higgins of being “unfortunately retrograde” in his decision not to attend the event.

On Mr Higgins standing over his decision and rebuking the DUP, Mr Donaldson said he was “very surprised.”

“I thought the President had risen above the politics of all of this, and perhaps he had been prevailed upon not to attend this event,” he said.

“But it is evident from what he said that in fact that this is much more than that. He uses language that I think is unfortunately retrograde, he talks about being President of Ireland, not the President of the Republic of Ireland, despite the fact people voted to remove the territorial claim over Northern Ireland and there was recognition in the constitution of the Republic of Ireland of the existence of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

“I think the language used by the President is not forward-looking. It does not recognise the reality that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.

“It is back to the old days when the President believes that he is President of the whole island, which we all know he is not.”

Mr Donaldson said it was “regrettable” that Mr Higgins was declining an invitation to a service being convened by Ireland’s four main churches which was organised to focus on “hope and reconciliation”.

“I have to say the comments made by President Higgins really are not conducive towards reconciliation,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

Mr Donaldson said he suspected many people in the Republic “will regret what has happened here”.

“I was disappointed with President Higgins’ remarks about the DUP,” he added.

“It was not just the DUP who asked him to rethink his decision, it was the Alliance party and other unionist parties, who joined in that call. It is not just my party who has raised this as an issue or a concern.”

Mr Donaldson insisted the DUP had sent representatives to “many events that are about promoting reconciliation”, adding that former leader Arlene Foster attended a church service in Dublin around the time of the Easter Rising commemoration.

In fact, Ms Foster attended a Church of Ireland-organised talk at Christ Church Cathedral about the Easter Rising in 2016. At the time, she said she would not attend commemorations, but was “very happy” to attend an “historical lecture or reflective evening.”

Mr Donaldson said the “standard” for reconciliation was set by Queen Elizabeth when she visited Ireland in 2011.

“When we think of the boundaries that she crossed, the taboos she broke, when we think of the remarkable way she conducted herself, which set the standard for reconciliation, I think it is truly disappointing that President Higgins, as head of state of the Republic of Ireland, really wasn’t able to step up on this one,” he said.

“I think it is a backward step. It does set us back.”

Mr Donaldson said unionists would be “deeply disappointed” by the President, and that his remarks “tells us a lot about the continuing negative attitude there is towards unionists, our identity, where we stand and indeed the very existence of Northern Ireland itself.”

Mr Donaldson said it was “unfortunate and regrettable” to be “dragged down to this level.

The Ulster Unionist MLA and former party leader Mike Nesbitt said on Friday that the explanation given by Mr Higgins for declining the invitation to the event was a matter of “surprise and regret” and described it as a “massive own goal” which “has the potential to infect good relations and reconciliation across this entire island and beyond.”

He said that up until this point, he had “admired Michael D Higgins’ commitment to outreach and reconciliation.

“My personal exchanges with him have been productive and at times inspiring, but this decision hits reverse gear hard.

‘Weary sadness’

“If there was a problem with language then there is no reason why the Presidential support staff could not have opened a quiet back channel to resolve all issues of language,” he said.

Separately, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church Rev Norman Hamilton said President Higgins’ defence of his decision not to attend the service filled him with “weary sadness”.

“My reaction to President Higgins’ statement overnight was just one of weary sadness, that something that is meant to be a help to reconciliation has now ended up . . . as a Constitutional argument, in a political row, and that we are having a lot more heat than light on a subject such as reconciliation.”

Reconciliation is “not something you can dip in and out of. You have to stick at it when there are adverse winds blowing against it,” Rev Hamilton told BBC Radio Ulster.

“I am saddened and troubled that something that was meant to be a helpful contribution - and nobody can doubt the integrity of the people organising it - has now turned into this sour, politicised, aggressive commentary,” he added.

Catholic Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown said he believed Mr Higgins was acting in good faith. “It is really very unfortunate, because I know the church leaders wanted to have a non-political event . . .but I have no doubt this is a very much a principled decision on the part of Michael D Higgins .

Speaking in Rome during a four-day official visit to the Italian capital, Mr Higgins said his problem was with the title of the event, which it was stated would “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”. He said the title was politicised and made it inappropriate for him as head of State to attend the event.

“What [had started out as] an invitation to a religious service had in fact become a political statement,” he said. “I was also referred to as the President of the Republic of Ireland. I am the President of Ireland.”

In a reference to Queen Elizabeth, he said: “There is no question of any snub intended to anybody. I am not snubbing anyone and I am not part of anyone’s boycott of any other events in Northern Ireland.

‘Bit much’

“I wish their service well but they understand that I have the right to exercise a discretion as to what I think is appropriate for my attendance.”

In response to DUP politicians who claimed he had snubbed the event, he replied: “It’s a bit much, to be frank with you. I have gone up to Northern Ireland to take part in events.”

“There often has not been a great deal of traffic down from the DUP people who are criticising me now,” he added.

He said he would not be revisiting his decision. “We are past the point now and I think it is unfortunate.”

He said on the day of the event he would be hosting the Statistical and Social Inquiry Association of Ireland at Áras an Uachtaráin.

In 2016 Mr Higgins pulled out of a dinner at Belfast City Hall to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising because he said there was no longer cross-party support for the event and he did not want to become embroiled in “political controversy”.